An evolutionary psychology study that gained much media attention in May 2017 claims to show women’s sexual attraction to other women is the outcome of evolution, specifically for the pleasure of heterosexual men. The study was reported widely as ‘homosexual women evolved for men’s pleasure.’ Journalists have not read the study nor linked to it. The study is published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The study is led by Associate Professor Menelaos Apostolou. The team is based at the University of Nicosia, with apparently only one woman co-author.
Here, I show why the study is flawed and why the conclusions are premised on dangerous heterosexism. Heterosexism is the prejudiced belief that heterosexuality is ‘natural’ and ‘normal,’ and that heterosexuality uniformly structures all aspects of social life. Heterosexism also presumes that gender is a binary (there are only two groups, men or women), and excludes the lived experiences of transgender people. Heterosexism brings to light the social construction of sexuality, and in this case, the values and social dynamics that impact on what is taken-for-granted about heterosexuality.
I focus my discussion on cisgender heterosexual and homosexual people as the authors of the study have presumed men and women can either be homosexual or heterosexual, to the exclusion of other gender and sexual identities. They have done this without explicitly saying so (it is a facet of heterosexism to reinforce binaries, because variations of sexuality disrupt the idea that heterosexuality is natural and normal). Experiences for transgender lesbians would vary, however, the authors presume a gender binary in thinking about lesbian desire.
With these cautions in mind, let’s dive into the study.
We have to deal with rubbish evo psych study described here: "homosexual women evolved for men's pleasure." NO. https://t.co/UPqm6WF0lu
Heterosexism is the presumption that being heterosexual is natural and normal. Women are also presumed to be passive in their sexuality, while men are active. The handwritten sign says: “Your husband just rang and said you can buy whatever you like.” On the one hand, this demonstrates that women are controlled by men (husbands give women permission to spend money). This is sexist and promotes men as “breadwinners” whom women rely on. This does not reflect Australian couples and families, which have a high proportion of women contributing directly to household income through paid work (and through unpaid domestic labour). On the other hand, while gender isn’t mentioned (maybe anyone can be a husband in this meaning), husbands dictate “your” autonomy. Hetetosexism is an exclusionary and dangerous way to view the world, by erasing, questioning or punishing LGBTQIA people, and by normalising men’s dominance over other groups.
Photo: The Other Sociologist.[Entrance to Christmas arts and craft shop with a sign outside as above, “Your husband….”.]
This is a lovely restaurant, unfortunately the menu is heterosexist – meaning it presumes everyone is heterosexual. The text reads: “Banquet menu. A royal treat for a King and his Queen.
Don’t do this – it excludes LGBTQIA people for no good reason, even if people don’t consciously mean to. First, it presumes that people in couples will dine with the opposite gender. Second, women are subordinate to men (the Queen belongs to the King). This is the first of two examples of heterosexism I saw in one day.
Let’s stop this. Inclusion starts with small acts of thoughtfulness every day and is ensured by structural changes – such as marriage equality in the law./
Playing at the Sydney Latin American Film Festival, The Companion is a Cuban film centred on Horacio, a Black Cubano who is a former boxing champion now disgraced. Played by Yotuel Romero, Horacio is assigned to work at a military-run hospital (”Los Cocos”) where all Cubans who were HIV positive were quarantined in the 1980s under the guise of universal healthcare.
The heterosexual inmates live in jail cells and are provided medicine; the most cooperative live in larger dorms but still under military command. Gay patients are placed in an overcrowded, dirty jail isolated from the city.
The inmates who are deemed worthy of the house are given one day off a week to visit the broader community but only with a “companion” who reports on their every move. Horacio’s companion is Daniel (Armando Miguel), a charming but rebellious White soldier, whose military family is affluent and well-respected.
This real-life historical context is the dramatic background for the film. There’s much to unpack with this story. The film is especially worth watching for its depiction of race, with Horacio facing overt racism and classism as well as other everyday forms of discrimination.
The film continually reinforces the central characters’ heterosexuality. While heterosexism reflects dominant norms in Cuban culture, elevated given the historical context, the result is that the film reproduces homophobic culture. The fact that the story is drawn from the biography of a heterosexual athlete, who forms a bond with another heterosexual man who delights in obscuring his sexuality, is problematic. Horacio is depicted as being highly tolerant but his sexual frustrations and a romantic side story are designed to cement his role as a heterosexual lead.
Daniel’s story of contracting the HIV virus is poorly handled and reflects troubling sexual and race politics. Despite his affable rebellion, Daniel behaves like a White colonialist, something the film takes for granted.
The depiction of women is alienating. Whether women are military officers or sex workers or mothers, they are not fully realised characters. They are victims who have weak hearts, who need protection or who scheme and deserve violence and illness. Even Lisandra (Camila Arteche), with her powerful onscreen presence, is ultimately there to be alternatively abused and saved by male characters. She is a distraction for Horacio, and affirms his sexual legitimacy as the protagonist. I wanted more for her and you will too.
The tensions between sexuality and race could have been better explored. The film is still a highly affecting look at a Black man’s social isolation that is rarely explored on the big screen. There is another sympathetic element to the story: friendship between two men who have been conditioned to repress their emotions and to distrust other men. Latin America’s colonial history affects racial relations across the continent in the present day, but in ways that Latin cultures have to significantly address. In this way, The Companion does something meaningful, and well worth watching and reflecting on.
Here is an interesting sociological study but one that highlights an important gap in sociological methods and thinking. This article is based on student research in the USA (originally published for a mass, non sociological audience) but it replicates a common problem with research our discipline produces. The ethonographic study uses non-participant observation within a four-star restaurant, which involved the researcher watching both opposite-gender and same-gender pairs eating, and taking field notes of the researcher’s observations. The study finds that “women” change their eating behaviour when eating with “men,” by taking smaller, less frequent bites, in comparison with when they eat with other “women.” This extends to the way in which “women” use napkins. All very interesting and worth reading.
But what the researcher leaves unsaid regards axes of socioeconomics that apparently do not matter to White, middle-class heterosexual audiences. We are not told how many people in the small sample size represent race, class and sexuality dynamics, let alone other markers of Otherness. The author generalises behaviour observed at a four-star restaurant to say something universal about gender, without considering that other cultures control eating (and gender, and race and sexuality) in divergent ways.
That people change their eating habits for different audiences should not surprise a sociologist. That sociologists still presume that White, middle-class Americans represent everyone might be surprising… if minority studies researchers weren’t so used to seeing sociology articles written this way.
If this was ethnographic research on Turkish people or Indigenous Australians or any other group, it would be a study on race or ethnicity as well as gender. But because many White sociologists see White people as the default – this is pitched as a study solely about gender. Race and other social makers are not mentioned because Whiteness is invisible, even to sociologists.
Beyond the obvious class differences (eating at a four star restaurant may be different than at a fast food chain), heterosexism pervades. In this piece, the author does not speculate on the context of the diners, but by virtue of not making a distinction, the audience is allowed to presume that women dining with men are part of a couple, perhaps on a date (therefore more careful in eating as part of impression management). The audience may muse that women don’t monitor how they eat in front of other women because they are presumably eating with a friend. The presumption of heterosexuality therefore governs how “gender” is discussed.
I used to go to many dinners with one group of girlfriends; two White middle class women born in Australia, and two of us are women of colour of working class backgrounds, born in developing nations. The two White women engaged in the most elaborate ritual after dinner, every time apologising for what they ate by talking about their dress size and weight gain. While their eating behaviour was different when they ate when in the presence of heterosexual men, eating was about verbal self-punishment, even in the absence of men. My dinners with my Other friend, when just the two of us, inevitability led to discussions of not having much money growing up, and how lucky and grateful we were to be able to afford eating out now we’d become adults. In our case, our relationship to food was different because of our migrant experiences; arguably, we bonded by being grateful about food (a different kind of food ritual that may or may not happen amongst our male counterparts).
Of course I have other White middle class heterosexual women friends who don’t engage in this eating self loathing but eating behaviour is nevertheless policed in some way or another. I have other friends who are upper middle class from other countries whose eating habits are very different again; for them excess is a marker of being high status, and of course eating habits vary according to context.
People’s relationship to food, and how we eat it, is influenced not simply by gender, but equally by culture and other social relations.
This researcher is by no means alone. Studies on “gender” are often code for White, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual norms. Intersectional feminists notice these ommissions all the time; White, middle class researchers less so. If we study “minorities,” the research is seen as a special study on that specific ethnic group. Studies on White people don’t have to account for culture,because White culture is the universal default in the Western European sociological tradition.
It’s almost 2016. Let’s do methods better, sociologists. Time to decolonise sociology.
1) White Australian man and woman at a restaurant. 2) Asian-Australian men and women at Chinese restaurant. Photos: Zuleyka Zevallos.
Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, describes white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks” (McIntosh, 1989).
The following are examples of ways white individuals have privilege because they are white.
I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing, or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
I can take a job or enroll in a college with an affirmative action policy without having my co-workers or peers assume I got it because of my race.
I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.